Neanderthals ate their veggies

Neanderthals weren't just meat-eaters, with new research finding that the ancient near-human creatures regularly cooked and consumed a variety of plants.
A depiction of a male Neanderthal at the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann, Germany. ((Heinz Ducklau/Associated Press))
Neanderthals weren't just meat-eaters, with new research finding that the ancient near-human creatures regularly cooked and consumed a variety of plants.

The discovery challenges the position of some who argue that Neanderthals were largely carnivores who ultimately became extinct, in part because they were bested by early human ancestors who managed to wring more nutrition from their environment by incorporating more plants into their diet.

Researchers examined the dental calculus — the layer of hardened plaque — in seven fossilized teeth of Neanderthal individuals whose remains were unearthed at archeological sites in Iraq and Belgium.

What they found was a wealth of well-preserved plant microfossils.

They identified dozens of starch grains from many plants, including wild grass, legumes, palm dates, roots and tubers.

Neanderthal cooking

They also found evidence that some of the plants had been cooked.

"There is clear evidence of cooking in the recovered starch grains, and furthermore, several of the identified plant foods would have required moderate to high levels of preparation," the researchers wrote in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"These lines of evidence indicate Neanderthals were investing their time and labour in preparing plant foods in ways that increased their edibility and nutritional quality."

The authors note that there is no evidence Neanderthals used tools to grind plant parts, which suggests they weren't practising agriculture.

But they say their research shows that Neanderthals were nevertheless "capable of complex food-gathering behaviours" that included hunting and the harvesting and processing of plants for food.